Thursday, 5 December 2013

How to install a nest camera!

An important part of my research has been to analyse the diet of Black eagles from the West Coast through to the Cederberg Mountains. I wanted to do this to see if there are variations in the diet which are associated with changes in anthropogenic land use. I have received generous help from experienced climbers who have used their skills and specialised gear to install the cameras.

However, since the start of my field work in 2011 it has been my goal to install and remove the nest cameras myself. My first major set back came in September 2011 when I broke my leg while hiking. This meant a long recovery and I wasn’t ready to train for the abseils in time for the 2012 breeding season. With much help we still installed five cameras in 2012 which gave the first exciting insight into what we might find.
Some top photos from one of the 2012 cameras
2013 approached fast and before long it was time to install cameras again. With the help of Douw Stein, Jessie Berndt, Brent Jennings and Andrew Jenkins six cameras were installed and I started to learn the ropes myself. With a big thanks to IdeaWild I also finally obtained my own climbing gear and was really ready to get stuck in.
My first practice was on rainy day in the barn at Driehoek. We slung gear over the beams and I had my first shot at ascending a rope. Between Douw and Jess I learnt what I needed to know and over the next five days we retrieved all of the nest cameras. There were some long hikes to reach the abseil points, which are extra tiring when you are carrying a 60m rope in your pack! But it was a rewarding experience to finally have the opportunity to remove the cameras and collect any prey remains which had been left on the now inactive nests. It also gave me the chance to really see life from the eagles point of view; gazing out over the mountains from a Black eagle nest!
Douw explains a few tricks of the trade
I get started
Last bit of advice from Douw before the real thing
And off we go: Descent, remove camera, collect prey remains & check out the view, ascent! 
These hikes were the last of my fieldwork for the season. Many thanks to everyone who has helped over the years: Douw Stein, Jessie Berndt, Chris Laidler, Brent Jennings, Andrew Jenkins, Mark Cowan, Dawie Burger, George van der Watt, Patrick Banville, Matthew Dowling, Darling Brew, Cederberg Cellars & IdeaWild.
It was with great anticipation that I took the memory cards home to download the photos, here is a sneak preview of some of what we have recorded:
Settled into incubation
Coming in for landing!
The adults discuss the imminent hatching of their single egg!
Welcome to the World!
Mmmmm guinea fowl
Tortoise for lunch!
Mole rat lunch for one...
Growing fast and stretching out the wings.
"Hey Ma, look at what I can do!"
Both of the adults arrive; the female mantles (covers) the prey to claim it and the young attempts the same technique.
Mole rat lunch for one...

And perhaps my favourite of them all: The fledgling returning to the nest!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Black Eagle Project: 2013

2013 Season Report
Megan Murgatroyd

I’m writing this from the cottage I have been living in for the last two years at Driehoek. If I look over my shoulder Tafelberg stares down at me and if I take a step back and do a 360° turn I can pinpoint four separate Black eagle nests on the distant mountains. The Cederberg has been my home and the heart of my research since 2011 and as my fieldwork is coming to an end I know I will sorely miss it.
Over the three years the eagles have never failed to amaze me and with the beginning of each breeding season I have closely followed the nests with great anticipation to see who will breed each year.
Figure 1: Graph showing the percentage breeding outcomes for the Black Eagle in the Cederberg and the Sandveld 2011-2013.
Field Work
Figure 2: The main road leading out of Driehoek, in the Cederberg, on 30th Aug 2013.
This year saw some meteorological surprises and trials, with the morning of the 30th August being a white out snow fall which buried at least one chick and kept me well and truly wrapped up in a down jacket! The chick, which was captured on the nest camera, managed to shake free of the snow and his endurance saw him fledging at 89-91 days old at the end of September.
Figure 3: Black eagle chick 59 days old standing in the nest laden with snow.
Heavy rainfall throughout winter created its own obstacles. With the regular flooding of the Cederberg roads, it quite literally at times became impossible to get out and see the eagles. But water levels generally dropped by the following day and I was usually grateful for an excuse to stay at home and catch up on data entry.
Figure 4: The Driehoek road bridge in flood. 
Nest cameras
I have continued with my investigation into the diet of the Black eagles in both the Cederberg and the Sandveld, in hope of reflecting upon their adaptability to changing environments. This year, with the enthusiastic and voluntary help of some very experienced climbers, we installed six nest cameras. As the chicks have only recently fledged I am still to retrieve the cameras. We will do this in November, when I hope to be dangling on the end of the rope myself! After this it will be the tedious, but likely fascinating, task of analyzing around 80,000 photographs for prey deliveries.
Figure 5: Adult Black eagle feeding a chick on Hyrax, also on the nest Mole rat and Cape francolin.
Click on the video for an exciting insight into 'a day in the life of an incubating Black Eagle'. This is compiled from time-lapse photos at three minute intervals.
GPS tagging
The GPS component of my research has been one of the biggest challenges but has also yielded the highest rewards. Initial data downloads have been exciting to receive and have produced some stunning outputs. Figure 6 shows high resolution data collected at three second intervals, which allows us to see the precise movements of an eagle catching a thermal.
Figure 6: High resolution tracking data collected from an eagle in the Cederberg. 
2013 also saw the successful tagging of a further two adult eagles in the Sandveld bringing the total number of eagles tagged for the project to five. Snapshots of their data are represented in Figures 8 and 9.
Figure 7: A Black eagle with a GPS tag is released in the Sandveld.
In July, I was stunned with the return of one of our tagged eagles. He was initially tagged in the Cederberg but after apparently being ousted, has now travelled northeast into the Karoo and as far south as Porterville. Although he appears to spend most of his time in the Karoo he has continued to regularly ‘visit’ the Cederberg and download his data. I am looking forwards to getting stuck into data analysis in the coming year to understand these movements more clearly.
Figure 8: GPS data collected from two eagles in the Cederberg. 
Figure 9: GPS data collected from three eagles in the Sandveld. 
Population surveys 
Through hiking and aerial surveys a total of 112 nest sites have now been located on cliffs in the study area. This year I monitored the breeding outcomes at 36 sites with help from Cape Nature on the Cederberg side. This now gives a good basis of information to work from to review the overall population status and breeding output. I also look forwards to making spot checks on their progress through 2014.

So it is with my deepest thanks that I end this report. Over the years I have received generous sponsorship from the National Birds of Prey Trust, Driehoek Wine, K-Way, the Cape Leopard Trust, Darling Brew, Idea Wild, Bridgestone, Donkies Kraal, Evosat and Cederberg Cellars. Dawie and Lizette Burger have given their boundless support and encouragement from Driehoek. Staff and volunteers at Eagle Encounters have enthusiastically supported my work both at the center and out in the field. Patrick Banville gave a full seven months of his time and skills to helping me throughout the 2012 monitoring season. Pilots from Base4Aviation have kindly donated their flying time and skill to the project by performing the aerial surveys. The Sandveld community have made me welcome and shared their homes with me. While many countless people have freely given their encouragement and interest, which has kept my motivation throughout – my thanks to you is endless.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Guest blog: Helicopter pilot Megan Klopper

"Can we try get closer? Maybe a little higher..." 
"Ok great!"
"Can we go around again?"

This was a normal day in the office with "M&M". Meg and I would be hugging the cliffs flying slowly as we scanned them for any nests, white markings or parents flying along with us. It was exhausting! If there were a degree for multitasking, I would have my masters. I would constantly be monitoring the machine, airspeed, height, planning escape routes, watching the wind and responding to Meg's many flying directions while she hung out the side of the helicopter, GPS and map in hand, like a spider-monkey. It had to have been some of my best and most intense flying yet!

I got my Private license last year and have been trying to build up hours for my Commercial license, this was the most exciting hour building I had done so far! Having flown for the project in 2012, I was so excited that we had the opportunity to help again this year. Flying in the Cederberg between beautiful untouched mountains with deep valleys, sheer cliffs and breath taking waterfalls was such a treat. Flying with a purpose and a goal for Meg's Black Eagle survey was incredible. With the helicopters we managed to spot over 30 nests in matter of days.

It was a once in a lifetime experience that only a handful of pilots got to enjoy thanks to Meg and my instructor Stefan. Thank you and good luck with the rest of your research, we hope to see you soon! :)

Megan Klopper

Megan M and Megan K prepare for take off
Signs of the eagles
Some nests are more tucked away than others
An example of a Black Eagle nest seen from the helicopter

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Guest Blog: Shane McPherson of Crowned Eagle Research

This blog comes from Shane McPherson whose research focuses on the ecology of the urban Crowned Eagles. How do they survive, even thrive, amongst the urban environments of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Shane is based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, to find out more about his work, go to: to hear more about his time in the Cederberg, read on:

So here I sit at Ashanti Backpackers in Cape Town.  A grey windy and wet day to write while passing the time, reflecting on the last ten days of bliss.  This was a self-inspired trip to visit The Black Eagle Project, PhD research initiated by Megan Murgatroyd.  Megan is now in the third field season of research comparing land use and productivity of the (relatively) pristine population of the cederberg Black (nee Verreaux) Eagles, and the eagles of the Sandveld which are living next to lands with extensive agricultural transformation.

On the 6th of September (happy birthday to me!) I flew from Durban to Cape Town, and boarded an evening supersonic taxi to Clanwilliam.  Megan met me here at 10pm and we began the hour-long drive to the field site, the gravel road endlessly evolving in the headlights.  Arriving at night meant I had no idea what landscape to expect in the morning.  On the first frosty dawn, the sun peaked over the eastern mountains and slowly warmed the valley.  The field house is part of the Driehoek farm, passionate sponsors of Megan’s research and, surrounded by the Cederberg Wilderness Area, perfectly situated for access the study site.  Driehoek is a great place to set up camp on one of their camping/caravan sites if you’re inspired to come and visit.

Spring comes to the cederberg now.  And the flowers were beginning to bloom.  To the south the fynbos dominates, and to the dryer northern slopes different colours representing succulent karoo. Mountains loom over the colourful valleys with tiered expanses of cliffs and crags providing an abundance of nesting opportunities for eagles and other raptors.  We spotted plenty of kestrels and booted eagles, and despite their absence no doubt the cliffs would be full of peregrine and lanner falcons as well.  In the river valleys, reed beds provide all that a Black Harrier would need, and the old oak trees around the homesteads also home to a Black Sparrowhawk.  I noticed a theme here - so I dressed in black every day - there must be some reason it works so well for mountain raptors.

While most of the nests in the cederberg have not bred this year (for reasons to be determined), we set out each day for short walks to nearby nest observation sites.  Invariably each site had some sort of eagle entertainment to watch.  On one occasion during the 1 hour watch, while being amused by the wing-flapping exercises of the eyass, the pair of adults appeared over the top of the ridge.  While one adult descended to the nest site to deliver fresh prey to the waiting chick, the other coming from an unknown location, tucked into a steep glide, building up speed and rushing by just 30 meters from us, before continuing out over the deep valley beyond.  At another site, the pair cautiously checked these bipedal intruders into their territory, drifting back and forth in front of the nesting cliff in the most majestic style before coming to perch together on a distant ridgetop buttress.

Three active nests were visited, including one that was a new discovery for the season – a site that takes an hour of bone-rattling driving and then a short hill hike to get to.  The bakkie ‘Ratel’ has done some rough miles over the last few years, and there have been countless flat tires to fix.  It takes guts and mettle to face these boulder strewn slopes, and trek miles through them day after day searching for nests.  And mettle Meg has in spades, attested to by a titanium pin, the result of a compound fracture while boulder hopping a stream early on in the project.  To strengthen the ankles again and blast through another two seasons is testament to the determination and passion for the Black Eagles.

Ratel in the karoo blooms

I battled to get far enough uphill of Meg to take this perspective shot

Happily, there was something useful I could help with.  On day three we set off early towards Tafelberg, the second highest summit in the range.  Up on the last plateau before the summit sat a VHF relay station to download GPS tagged eagles - this had been pounded by recent storms, the unit was silent and the aerial broken.  So after a 2 hour uphill hike (passing a lifer, a pair of Cape Rockjumper’s on the way), we reached the base station, stopped for lunch, admired the scenery, and then loaded the equipment, Megan with the batteries and downloader and I with the 9 ft aerial, descending back to the field base.  A few days later I was to get another remarkable perspective of Tafelberg peak.

For some weeks Megan has been preparing to repeat the helicopter surveys that proved so successful last season.  The 2012 helicopter surveys were in November, when many nest had fledged, this year the surveys were timed earlier to be able to locate the nests while chicks were still at home. Unfortunately, September surveys coincided with the aviation students’ exam time, and there were limited numbers of pilots and budgets available to fly the crags of the cederberg, cutting down on the previous years available flying time.
On Wednesday evening, the two two-seater R22 ‘matchbox’ helicopters arrived.  They were covered in their blankets for the night.  The sun peered over the ridgetops the next morning and gradually softened the frost.  But the helicopters were hypothermic after such a cold night.  Theres something disconcerting with helping jumpstart toy helicopters that we’re supposed to be airborn minutes later, moreso when one of them refuses - having blown some electrics around the solenoid or alternator.  Without power for the radio’s and gauges the pilots decided that it should stay grounded until the flight back to cape town airport. So down to one helicopter for the survey.

Happy with the jumper leads, the second chopper roared to life, and the first flight was up and out by 9am. Megan logged four flights, surveyed 28 nests, and added three new nest sites to the known population!  Incredible success for five hours airborne.   Then as 4pm rolled around, there was one hour left before sunset, the chopper refuelled and Megan offered me an opportunity to fly a transect.  Taking a direct line over the Tafelberg neck where days ago we’d hiked 2 hours up the mountain, in 7 minutes we crested the ridge, and descended to the other side, passing the Die Hoek nest site that takes over an hour to drive to.  Passing over a waterfall, another plateau and then into a cavernous gorge on the Tra-tra River.  After taking several runs at gps marks on tiered cliffs, it was quickly apparent this was no walk in the park – despite being just tens of meters from the cliffs. Eventually, I spotted one of the sites, apparently recently used but definitely empty.  And all too soon with fuel and sunlight running out it was time to turn tail and head back over the ranges to base.  We passed by the Tafelberg neck again just as the setting sun poured red light over the rust coloured rocks.

The following morning, rolling clouds and high winds forced the pilots to beat an early departure from these changeable mountains, flying in tandem back to CapeTown so the bird with the radio’s could get ground clearance for the crippled craft.  Meanwhile Megan and I walked to Uilsgat Rock to sit under an old bushman shelter, with weathered rock art, the old bushman's shelter was a great place to chill and maybe see a pair, despite an inactive nest this year.

After eight days of blue blue skies and softly winds, yesterday morning I woke to the rain streaking sideways across the valley.  Time to hitch a lift back to Cape Town then.  The week has given me a very constructive time to discuss all thoughts of eagles, the trials and successes of the research.  The environments our respective eagles call home definitely determine much of the rest of how the research plays out.  And I find myself somewhat envious of Megan’s remote little mountain paradise (inspiring landscapes, melt-water streams, pure fresh air), while also appreciating the benefits of urban research (smooth roads, passionate public participation, and access to… well civilization).  Now I’m looking forward to getting home to the crowned eagles to perhaps see the first hatched chicks of the season.